- Book Review Index
Nemesis, by Philip Roth. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2010. 280 pp. $26.00.
Philip Roth, one of the most prolific novelists of the last quarter century, has moved into a darker vein with his latest works. Gone is the playfulness, especially around sex, that characterized his earliest success Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) and that continued as a thread into later works like Sabbath’s Theater (1995). Starting with the final book in his Kapesh saga, The Dying Animal (2001), his works have taken on a more somber hue, centering on mortality and meditating on what his literary legacy has come to mean. This is true in his newest novel, Nemesis.
Nemesis returns to the same timeframe (but not the same cast) as his The Plot Against America (2004); however, unlike Plot, Nemesis is not set in an alternate historical space, but the very real history of the hot summer of 1944, when World War II broiled in the background and a polio epidemic ravaged the children of Newark, New Jersey, during this record-breaking heatwave. For Roth’s readers, this return to the 1940s paints on modern history the same strangeness and abjection contained in our own day; as science-fiction author William Gibson put it in a recent interview, “Contemporary reality is like an overlapping set of dire science-fictional scenarios” (New York Times Magazine, 8/19/2007). Roth locates this strangeness in the past, and in the case of Nemesis, a real past.
Nemesis centers on teacher and summer playground supervisor Bucky Cantor, a former athlete whose glory days seem to be behind him. Cantor has been rejected for service in the Armed Forces because of weak eyesight, so he spends his summers overseeing the baseball field and wishing he was doing something more significant, like his friends who are fighting the Germans overseas. The spectre of polio brings the abject to the surface, and Roth does a fine job of exploring the blurring of the lines between rational responses to the unknown and the panic caused by the epidemic. One of the subtexts of the novel is that the epidemic encourages a scapegoating of the Jewish children by Italians and others in the Newark community of the ‘40s.
Roth is masterful in the means through which he makes that which is traditionally abject play a major role in the novel. Italian children who are harrassing the Jewish kids use spit to intimidate them; blood and the threat of contamination seem present all around. More significantly, the fear of the community is manifested in hysteria powerfully and richly descibed; one particularly fearful neighbor of a family whose child has died of polio lets out a scream that, as Roth writes, “could have been generated by an electrical current. It was a high-pitched, protracted sound unlike any human noise he knew, and the eerie shock of it caused” Cantor’s “skin to crawl” (p. 52).
Roth divides the novel almost in half, between a section where Cantor is in the Jewish community, working with the children at the playground and ball diamond, and a second section where Cantor takes a job at a camp in the Poconos called Indian Hill, a decision he almost immediately regrets. In the second section of the story, the appropriation of Native American custom and ritual for privileged white kids at Indian Hill is one of the more interesting aspects of the novel, especially as Roth demonstrates in the novel’s acknowledgements how carefully he researched both the setting and the state of Indian camp lore at the time of the novel’s setting.
Although I find that Roth’s skills as a storyteller have not at all diminished since the heydey of works like Portnoy’s Complaint, there are two aspects of this novel that I find less than completely satisfactory. Bucky Cantor has his major epiphanies in association with his fiance Marcia’s family; yet, somehow, the nature of Cantor’s relationship with Marcia needs more development. An awkward shift at the end of the novel, when Bucky himself contracts polio, from first to third person narrative (and not, as one might think, because Bucky can no longer tell his own tale) leaves the end of that relationship and the reasons for its dissolution rather cloudy. This third section—which reads more as a coda than a full-fledged part of the novel—fails to engage the reader as fully as it might. This lack could be because Bucky himself is so unreflective, but this reader, anyway, wanted more.
Additionally, the concluding salvo of the novel, with a remembrance of Bucky at his peak position practicing his athletics, seems a somewhat trite, nostalgic paean to a lost childhood conceived through sporting prowess that really never was. It leaves this particular reader cold; I expected more of Roth than to fall for this type of Americana wistfulness without a bit of critical or satiric insight.
Mark K. Fulk
Buffalo State College, SUNY